Russian Space Leaders Split on GEO vs LEO at SatComRus
Last week, the movers and shakers within the Russian space industry gathered virtually at SatComRus to talk about the future for satellite in Russia, and what the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic will have on this landscape. Oleg Dukhovnitskiy, Head of the Federal Communications Agency (FCA) in Russia said that satellite communications plays a big role in governance and communications in Russia, and that availability of data is the basis for a better quality of life.
“I can tell you that COVID-19 has demonstrated the critical role that public governance in today’s world. Without such technologies, we cannot do this. We need to provide access to information through satellite technologies. Satellite technologies are important in Siberia, the Arctic regions, throughout the Caucasus region,” he said.
Dukhovnitskiy said the Russian government had opened up new horizons for digital projects in broadcasting, and said that 60% of digital broadcasting in Russia is now supported by satellites. Dukhovnitskiy spoke of Russia’s ambitions for its satellite programs. “We want ubiquitous internet access across Russia. We want to improve the competitiveness of Russia on the global stage. We want to provide HD services all across Russia. We will also be supporting access to digital services on maritime routes as well. We have various R&D projects in telecoms and satellites.”
One of the most ambitious ambitious programs involving satellite is called Sphera, the collective name for all of Russian civil satellite constellations. These can be in various orbits and for different applications. This name is used by Roscosmos (Russian Space Agency) to classify all domestic civil satellite constellations designed for non-scientific purposes and aimed at the development of the country’s economy. It includes the Geostationary (GEO) satellites of all of Russia’s satellite operators, as well as navigation satellites, Earth Observation (EO), research and science satellites. It will also encompass future Internet of Things (IoT)/ Machine-to-Machine (M2M) constellations. The FCA will work in coordination with RSCC to create new satellites and payloads.
Dukhovnitskiy admitted that COVID-19 had been a challenge for the nation’s satellite plans, and said there have been supply chain delays. “We need to maintain the pace we had last year. The competition with international players increases. The biggest disruptors are LEO [Low-Earth Orbit] constellations for us. They are creating new infrastructures.”
Dukhovnitskiy also highlighted the importance of maritime for the Russian satellite industry and he said he expects the industry to bounce back strong. “The activity around maritime communications decreased this year, but we expect it to be bounce back next year. We expect this this market to show significant growth over the next few years,” he said.
Oleg Ivanov, the deputy minister of Digital Development, Communications and Mass Media of the Russian Federation also emphasized the importance of satellite for Russia’s digital plans. Ivanov said satellite’s characteristics match the country’s needs so well, that satellite communications could have been created just for Russia. He highlighted the importance of trying to bring broadband connectivity across Russia, with remote regions in Russia in particular demanding better connectivity, data rates, and latency.
“There is yet another clear challenge which we keep hearing about, and that is the cost of satellites communications. It is not something that always depends on the satellite operator. There are many different dimensions to these issues. What are the ways to address these challenges? We need to increase capacity in the market. The transition to different bands and frequency ranges will be very important here.”
Yuri Vilkov, deputy general designer for Development and Innovations of satellite manufacturer ISS-Reshetnev said the company needed to get back to back to basics to meet the challenges of the market. “The manufacturing costs of spacecraft needs to come down. Our objective is to be able to meet all the challenges that we see today. We need to develop our manufacturing capacity. We understand fully that our future is linked to the creation of better antennas, for example. We need to get back to basics. Our objective is to maintain our technology preparedness and deliver any spacecraft demanded by the market,” he says.
RSCC Looks to Expand Business Beyond Russia
RSCC (Russian Satellite Communications Company) is the flag bearer for the Russian satellite industry. The company recently launched two new satellites and will be at the heart of developing better communications across Russia. Director General Yuri Prokhorov said most satellites in the GEO market now are High Throughput Satellites (HTS), and also said that RSCC is looking to build software-defined payloads in the future.
He was more circumspect when talking about the prospects for LEO systems. “We see quite a bit of interest in LEO systems, Starlink and OneWeb. The idea is that they would provide high coverage and offer broadband access. These systems have some benefits. They have better energy performance and lower latency. However, there are some challenges as well. Large parts of populations would be outside coverage areas. It is also about providing subscriber equipment. There are many challenges are still in front of us,” Prokhorov said.
It has been a challenging year for RSCC, and Prokhorov said the company hopes its revenues this year will be at the same level compared to last year, when customers increased the volume of services consumed. He said the rate of project development has slowed, flights have been cancelled, and RSCC is seeing lower business activity. About 51% of RSCC’s revenue is international, and the company is working to expand its business outside of Russia.
Prokhorov also highlighted the maritime market as one of that was ripe for growth for RSSC. He believes RSCC can grow its revenues by over 10% in maritime by the end of next year. “There is growing demand for connectivity on vehicles both on the ground and in the air. The pandemic has hit aero and maritime. But, we see strong development in this area. Demand is growing,” he said. According to expert estimates, RSCC occupies about a third of the Russian market for maritime VSAT services. This could increase to 50% by 2023.
Prokhorov also highlighted the importance of Sphera. RSCC is building a constellation as part of the Sphera program. Before 2030, RSCC plans to develop, launch, and commission ten new GEO spacecraft: Express-AMU3, Express-AMU7, Express-AMU4, Express-AMU5, Express-AMU6, Express-AT3, Express-AT4, Express-40, Express-36, and Express-AMU8. These spacecraft will increase the number of high-tech, modern Russian-made GEO satellites, and add to the capabilities of the orbital constellation. There are also plans to develop and build a new system of satellite communication using the Highly Elliptical Earth Orbit (HEO) Express-RV spacecraft.
“These satellites will allow us to provide connectivity to many users. Our constellation will have much greater capacity. We will offer more services through our GEO satellites. We will provide connectivity to ships, aircraft, buses, trains, for example. We will provide high connectivity to many faraway locations in Russia. We will also be able to offer services in the international markets,” Prokhorov said.